Family relations are the theme of today’s readings. We have both the inter-human relationships and our relation to God. Family life is used as a metaphor for the Christian community, treating other people as if they were our brothers and sisters.
Using a musical image, this reading is the ‘overture’ to the Sunday readings devoted to God’s intended holiness for the human family. This short selection plunges us into the middle of a story by one of the most superb writers of the Old Testament – whose name we do not know. (Biblical scholars have adopted the term ‘Yahwist’ for this author, based on the use of the name ‘Yahweh’ for God.) He or she writes vivid stories that have captured the imagination of succeeding generations. They have, however, caused problems when taken ‘literally’ as history, and not as a story carrying a theological truth. The full account – we hear only a part – runs from the middle of verse 4 of chapter 2 to the end of chapter 3 in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Since both the literary form of a story and modern science tell us that this is not meant to be ‘actual history’, we look for the spiritual meaning behind the story.
The author in previous verses told us that a man (adam in Hebrew) was fashioned from the clay (adamah) of the earth, reminding humans that they are part of the natural world. (This playing on words is common in the Hebrew Bible.) Humans are meant to exist in relationship and next the story turns to the need of companionship with a ‘suitable’ partner. There is suspense as the storyteller describes God creating various animals and bringing them to Man to be named. In the thought of the ancient world, to give someone a name shows power over them, a feeling that is not entirely absent from the modern world.
But no animal is suitable as a true helper and mate, so God dramatically takes a part of the man’s body, close to the heart, and makes a woman. There is a similarity in the Hebrew language between the two words for man/woman (ish/ ishshah) as there is in English man/woman. This word play, like the physical closeness of a rib, again stresses human unity. Notice that how the man sees her is thus related to himself or rather, he recognizes her as part of himself. (He will not be said to name her ‘Eve’ ‘mother of the living’- until after they have sinned and have been turned out of Paradise. I take this naming-as-power-over indicates that the patriarchal practice of men controlling women – still much evident in the world today – was not God’s original intent for men and women.) The storyteller then adds a conclusion to show how this original story continues in successive human lives when people leave their parents and form a new family.
Psalm 127/ 128
This is one of the shortest psalms in the Bible. It is in the early Wisdom tradition which sees human virtue rewarded in this life. (Later understanding will realize that this does not always happen but that God is still at work in our pains and sorrows, as in the next selection.) Here family life is seen as one of the greatest of blessings. It is addressed to men, who by living virtuously will have sufficient goods and a happy wife and children. The psalmist may assume that the good wife on her part is rewarded with the care of a good husband and with children. The importance of women is recognized in other Wisdom books of the Old Testament, an example is Proverbs 31:10-31.
We might see in this how the curses on Adam and Eve as they are turned out of Paradise (Genesis 3:16-19) could be turned into blessings. Christians have seen the promise of ‘enmity’ between the tempter and humanity (Genesis 3:15) as a foretelling of Christ’s redemption which recognizes that the good may suffer in this world.
There is a change in emphasis in this reading focusing on Jesus, and the way that his human life, death and return to glory has brought us as sons and daughters into a family life with God. (Although our translation says only ‘sons’, the plural gender in Greek can include females, and some modern translations use the word ‘children’ instead, the same reason for adding ‘sisters’ to ‘brothers’.) This vision of how intimate we are to be in Christ and with God the Father is also found in Jesus’ words in the gospels (as in Mark 3:35). It directs us not only to God as Father, but to other human beings with whom we share the life given us through Jesus.
Jesus in this passage draws on the story of Genesis, showing its continued meaning for Christian living. Men at that time were permitted to send away their wives simply by writing a ‘bill of divorce’, which would give her some protection so she could find a new husband, but this created hardship for many women in a society where some male support was usually needed for survival. Women had no right to divorce in the world Jesus first spoke to, although they could initiate divorce in Rome. For Jesus, such a husband’s intent to ‘divorce’ does not break the God-given union.
Modern conditions of marriage differ much from the past and this has meant a lot of reflection on what constitutes a real marriage. Jesus holds out the ideal for us as Christians to act with compassion in difficult cases.
This passage would help form the Church’s teaching of marriage as a sacrament. The disciples ‘question’ Jesus, perhaps thinking the teaching is too hard, although Jesus’ words indicate that the real hardness exists in the hearts of those men seeking to break the bond and dismiss their wives.
Rather like the psalm, Jesus then goes on to speak of children, and stresses their importance in the Christian view of the world, which can be in contrast to worldly attitudes then and now that children are not always given the same rights or the same standing before God that adults hold for themselves. Mark also uses this story of Jesus welcoming and blessing children to add what we heard last week – that we are to welcome God as wholeheartedly as children accept their parent’s love.